How does Angel Investing?

May 13, 2021 holman

“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a venture capitalist.”
— Unofficial motto of Party Tent, the famous two-faced venture-backed startup that imploded one dark night when their lead designer got busted for not paying the font licensing fees for Gotham

Making the jump from software to investing

I started making the transition from software into angel investing a couple years ago. A few things immediately became apparent:

It’s been a couple years now, and I’ve learned a lot. And since I’ve recently seen so many developers start showing an interest in making a similar leap… I thought I’d share some thoughts on making that transition.

Don’t worry about a possible impending global financial crash or the fact that valuations are totally bonkers because of all the other new investors jumping into the mix: you’re an investor now, dammit, and metrics and forecasting don’t need to be your priority anymore. (Kidding. Probably.)

The cold start

I think it’s understandable that most people who have worked for startups in the past have no idea how the whole industry really works. They might be able to build an amazing, scalable backend perfectly written in eight different programming languages (except JavaScript), but when it comes to raising money, when it comes to stock treatment and valuation differences, when it comes to analyzing a new company — which might still be just a single person and a napkin sketch! — it’s just not their wheelhouse.

Part of that is a failure of previous work experiences: as an industry, we don’t do a really great job at teaching these things, or even worse, we hide them behind the “that is confidential information!” justification. At the first startup I worked at, our CEO walked us all through our books line-by-line and described how the business worked, saying “if a company hides this from you, treat it as a red flag”. I think about that a lot.

So the trick is to cram all that information you had missed out on and get yourself up to speed quickly. One straightforward way to start is to — unsurprisingly — read. There’s a lot of great information out there: I’m a fan of Holloway’s guide to angel investing, which is a deep-dive into angel investing in particular. But don’t forget that there are always two sides to every angel investment transaction: yours and the founder’s. So I also think it’s super helpful to read up on “how to raise” resources, too. Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson’s Venture Deals is kind of the gold standard. That’s actually what I first read before starting to raise money for During a few years back. There’s a ton of overlap between raising money and investing in companies, and if you’re looking to do one of them, I highly suggest doing the other, too. You learn so much about investing from trying to raise money. And you learn so much about raising money by investing.

Investing without money

One of the first things I hear from others who are interested in becoming an angel is “what’s the minimum check size to get started”? And, naturally, that’s an important question to ask, especially because people are all sorts of gradients between “I don’t have any extra money for this” and “I own Amazon”.

The minimum check size is zero.

The thing I hate most about investing is that the iteration cycle is so expensive. Both in terms of money — it’s your money, and you ostensibly don’t want to piss it away — and it’s especially expensive in terms of time. Think you found a breakout company? Cool, now just wait 5-10 years before you can get a full result. Makes you pine for software, where you can make a mistake, discover it when you deploy it three minutes later, push a fix, and redeploy, all within ten minutes. The investing iteration cycle sucks. And if you’re just getting started, it can be really expensive before you even start becoming competent.

Something I tried to leverage before taking investing seriously is to do it without money at first. There are a few ways to do that:

Another option, if you’re feeling lonely, is to just add the phrase “angel investor” to your Twitter profile. You’ll start getting lots of randos sending you weird pitches. It’s… uh, not necessarily a recommended approach.

How can I be helpful?

One of the common jokes is that every investor will inevitably end an email with the phrase “How can I be helpful?” It comes from a good place, of course — sure, everyone wants to be helpful — but just expressing the desire to be helpful isn’t really… well, helpful.

Before really jumping into investing, it’s worthwhile to really ask yourself how you’re actually planning on being helpful. Otherwise… why are you even doing this? Just throw a bunch of call options on $GME or some shit instead. Part of the benefit of angel investing is using your background to hopefully improve your return on investment.

There are a lot of ways to be helpful, but I’ve found for early-stage startups that are three main areas where help is always sorely needed:

You and them

There’s a lot more to dig into; if you’ve never done this before, virtually everything is a learning process. I’m still learning what feels like new things every day. But it’s really been fun, especially if you have some experience in the industry and you find yourself getting burned out on the software side of things. Just talking to other companies, seeing different approaches and mentalities of how they attack problems… it can be pretty eye-opening. And a lot of the time the advice you give as an investor or advisor doesn’t even have to be perfect advice. Sometimes it’s just helpful to say “whoa, don’t do that, because I did that early on at this other startup and it was a fucking terrible decision, and here’s why”.

The only other aspect that ties into all of this is to keep remembering what you’re doing here. For these companies you’re a source of capital. And that’s great- that’s how big things can come from humble starts. Hopefully you’re a source of reassurance, wisdom, and encouragement, too. But you’re not changing the world; the founders and their team are. You’re not some sort of ridiculous genius savant for picking winners; you might just be competent at wiring money back and forth. It’s worth pointing that out because the power dynamics here are totally fucked up. People come to you for money, and you get to make the ultimate decision: yes or no. Easy to get wrapped up in that… but try not to.

Try to help people, try to make good decisions, and hopefully things work out for everyone.